Feedback

by Paul Matthews

Constructive feedback

Most people find the giving of constructive feedback to be considerably more difficult than handing out positive feedback. This is largely because of their fear over the possible reactions of the recipient and the effect it may have on the relationship.

The key here is usually planning the feedback so you have a well-prepared gift, and really knowing that it is a gift. Take some time over this until you gain experience. Use the Tools and Principles so they become second nature and habitual.

It does become easier with experience; in time, you will get better and achieve better results for yourself and the feedback recipients.

Below are a few more tips and pointers to help you make your constructive feedback more effective.

Planning

When thinking about giving constructive feedback, there are some questions that you may want to consider.

  • What was good about the event and what was not?
  • What other clear examples do you have of this particular behaviour or action where the outcome was negatively affected in some way?
  • What was the desired outcome and why was that not achieved?
  • What was the positive intention behind the behaviour?
  • What is the exact behaviour or action that needs to be improved?
  • How could that behaviour or action be improved?
  • What support might the individual need to be able to improve?
  • Is this a weak area that has little chance of improving? If so, what can be done?
  • Will the person understand what you are trying to say, or will you need extra examples to get your point across?
  • How can you be considerate, thoughtful and sensitive with regard to the recipient, so they are open to receiving?
  • What reactions might you get during the feedback?
  • How can you prepare for those reactions?
  • How can you give this feedback positively?
  • How can you give this feedback constructively at a level that suits the recipient?
  • How do you feel about giving this feedback?
  • How will you know the feedback was successful?
  • When is a good time and place to give the feedback?

If you think through the answers to these questions upfront, you are likely to be better prepared for the feedback session and the constructive feedback has more chance of being exactly that – constructive.

Language

When giving constructive feedback, be careful with the language that you use. There are several words that are usually unhelpful and are better to avoid.

‘Always’ and ‘never’ and any other universal word

These can make the constructive feedback subjective rather than objective and can be too generalist. Does the person really never do something? The effect of these universal words is often to put the recipient on the defensive.

‘Should’ and ‘ought’ and other words that imply a duty

Even if they don’t voice it, the other person’s internal response will be the challenge ‘says who?’

One way around this is to replace the word ‘should’ with ‘could.’ The word ‘could’ gives more of a coaching feel. If you say to somebody, ‘you should have done this,’ it is possible that it will make them defensive; if, instead, you say, ‘you could have done that,’ it does not seem so aggressive and comes across as more of a constructive suggestion.

On the other hand, if something must be done a certain way, perhaps for legal or safety reasons, then say so and use the word ‘must’ (and tell them why it is non-negotiable).

‘Why’

If you ask someone why they did something, you are inviting them to justify their actions and, in their mind, this actually reinforces the behaviour. Rather than ask why someone did something that turned out wrongly, ask them what their purpose or intended outcome was. This is quite a different question and far more useful.

On the other hand, it is quite appropriate to ask why someone did something that turned out well, as this will reinforce the desired behaviour.

Body language

Consider your body language. This can go a long way towards building up rapport with a person and getting constructive feedback across in a way that will help them to learn and develop.

  • Make eye contact with the person. This helps to promote trust and openness. Do not avoid their eyes.
  • Do not sit with your arms crossed. This can be interpreted as meaning that you are closed to what the person has to say, or that you are defensive.
  • Sit facing towards them – this indicates that you are interested in what they have to say.
  • Lean closer as appropriate – this shows that you are particularly interested in a point.
  • Smile and nod regularly – this helps with establishing rapport, and lets the person know that you value them.

Make sure at all times that your body is telling the same story that you are, so that the message does not get contradicted (see Rapport and Body Language).

Feedback sandwich

One popular approach to the giving of constructive feedback is known as the ‘feedback sandwich’.

What this means is that constructive, developmental feedback is sandwiched between positive statements.

  1. What went well? First you discuss things that went well. By doing this, you try to win the person over to your side and soften them up.
  2. What could have been better? This is when you give them the constructive feedback – the information that will help them to develop and learn.
  3. Give support. After the discussion about what could have been better, you move onto the support that you have for them. This includes letting them know how much you value them and their contribution and how you want to help them to grow and develop.

The feedback sandwich is highly debated as a feedback tool. The main criticism of this approach is that the constructive feedback can sometimes get lost in between all of the positive and supportive elements. When using this tool, it is critical to ensure that the person has understood the message that is being given in the constructive feedback segment of the conversation.

Another downside to this construction for feedback is that people who have been subjected to it a lot are so conditioned to expect bad news immediately after hearing something positive that they don’t even want to hear the positive. They brace themselves for what’s coming next and treat the positive beginning layer of the sandwich as insincere, since it is just there to ‘make the sandwich’.

By all means use the feedback sandwich, but use it carefully and not all the time. A better construction of your sandwich could be

  1. Make a suggestion
  2. Give two reasons why it is a good idea.
  3. One reason that states what the suggestion would accomplish
  4. One reason that states what the suggestion would prevent or solve
  5. Make an overall positive comment about the person and their abilities

Good suggestions

Just telling someone what not to do can be useful, but it can leave the recipient wondering what they could be doing instead.

Imagine you are giving someone feedback on a presentation they made and you tell them ‘don’t shuffle your feet’. At the next presentation, they are so busy thinking ‘don’t shuffle my feet’ that they are liable to do it, since it is so prevalent in their mind, and they also have no idea what they could be doing as an alternative.

A better solution is to suggest what they could do with their feet and make sure that this precludes the undesired behaviour. You could, for example, suggest that they put an even weight on each foot and keep it there to such an extent that if they were standing with each foot on a bathroom scale, the needles wouldn’t move. This gives them a very exact behaviour to aspire to without even mentioning the shuffling or what not to do.

Giving suggestions in this way requires some imagination and is rather more difficult than it sounds, but it is well worth doing.

A trap for the unwary is to give too many suggestions at once. Ask yourself, ‘what is the one piece of feedback I could give that will have the most impact?’

Two-way street

Remember that they may also have feedback for how you handled the issue or event, if you were involved in it. Be open to this and consider it carefully. Don’t just dismiss it. Think about what the person is saying and take their feedback to you on board.

Listen to what the person is saying about the help that you might be able to give them. Perhaps there is a training issue that you were unaware of? Maybe the incident was not caused by them, but by something further up the chain that you were unaware of.

Feedback is a two-way process, not a speech. Use pauses to give the person time to think, and to have their chance to respond. Ask them what you can do to help them.

Barriers to feedback

Feedback can be difficult to give and to receive. Both parties (giver and receiver) must be open to feedback. Barriers to feedback include

  1. Fear that it will make you disliked or unpopular
  2. Concern that the individual will not be able to handle the feedback
  3. Fear related to reactions encountered when giving feedback previously
  4. A feeling that the feedback is not going to be constructive or helpful
  5. A lack of success giving feedback on a previous occasion, where nothing changed as a result.
Tip

If these barriers are enough to stop you even trying to give feedback, even with the help and tools in this topic, then it could well be worth finding a coach or mentor to assist you. Getting good at feedback is an essential management skill.

Ideally, within your team, you need to move towards an environment of openness and honesty, where all staff recognise that the purpose of feedback is so that they can grow and develop, rather than to apportion blame or to criticise.